Exposing Nuclear Experiments Department of Energy Launches Effort to Examine Three Decades of Records
Keith Schneider 1993, New York Times News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
FOR THREE DECADES after World War II, top medical scientists in the nation's nuclear weapons industry undertook an extensive program of experiments in which civilians were exposed to radiation in concentrations far above what is considered safe today.
The experiments, at government laboratories and prominent medical research institutions, involved injecting patients with dangerous radioactive substances such as plutonium or exposing them to powerful beams of radiation. Energy Department officials say many patients did not know they were the subjects of experiments.
At the time that much of the research was undertaken, considerably less was known about the hazards of radiation. It was common in the 1950s, for instance, for shoe stores to use X-ray machines to fit customers.
In addition, the government's nuclear scientists, conducting their work as though atomic war were imminent, placed a top priority on research to understand the effect of radiation on soldiers and civilians. And some doctors credit such research for early advances in the forms of nuclear medicine that now fight disease and save lives.
Although glimpses of this program have been made public in the past, most recently in a 1986 congressional investigation, the government fought efforts by journalists, private investigators and family members of the patients involved to make the full story known.
Now, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary has vowed to shine a bright light into what her aides say is a dark corner of America's cold war legacy. Prompted by questions raised by The Albuquerque Tribune in a series of articles last month about one such experiment, O'Leary has ordered the most thorough investigation ever of her Department's biomedical research program.
The department has hired six archivists to comb classified records at the National Archives for documents on human medical experimentation and other government nuclear research in which civilians were secretly exposed to potentially harmful levels of radiation. O'Leary has also increased the number of employees who review and declassify documents in her own department from three to six, and she has announced plans to train more people to do such work.
In an interview, she said the investigation was motivated by "an obligation to put the public's mind at rest and expose things that need exposing."
There is broad support among those concerned with such issues, in and out of government, for her initiative, which, if successful, would help improve the department's image as officials work to resolve huge conflicts over dismantling the nation's nuclear arsenal and cleaning up its weapons complex.
Two of the experiments under review by the department ended in the early 1970s and involved exposing the testicles of more than 100 healthy prison inmates in Oregon and Washington state to very high levels of radiation from X-ray machines.
Documents show that the prisoners were paid small sums and were required to sign consent forms in order to take part.
Robert Alvarez, a special assistant in the Office of Policy Planning and Program Evaluation - and one of the many influential critics of the Energy Department who now work for O'Leary - said the consent forms had not fully explained the risks of the experiment, especially the risk of developing testicular cancer. No follow-up studies were conducted on the men who participated, he said.
"These prisoner studies were clearly unethical," Alvarez said.
But Dr. C. Alvin Paulsen, a retired professor of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine who helped conduct the experiments in that state, defended the study. He said he had kept audio recordings of interviews with inmates that show they were well informed about the intent of the research and the risks, including cancer.
"The question we asked was: `What was the minimal effect of radiation that would interfere with the development of sperm,' " said Paulsen, who is now 69 and lives in Seattle. …